Avadāna (in Sanskrit; apadāna in Pali) is an indigenous name for a general type of Buddhist narrative, and the generic name given to many individual narratives and narrative collections. The basic features of this tale type remain somewhat nebulous, however. Whether they are called avadāna or something else, like pūrvayoga or vratakathā or dṛṣtānta, “avadāna-like” narratives, more or less broadly defined, are found in most or possibly all Buddhist literary traditions. Such stories are also found in commentaries, as in the Pali tradition, and in Vinaya collections, such as those of the Sanskrit traditions of the Mūlasarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika, and also in various Mahayana sutras. Furthermore, such stories and collections of stories are found under various names throughout Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhist traditions, and in various other vernacular and canonical Buddhist languages. They are also connected to life-story narratives of the Buddha and other eminent Buddhist figures. Thus, jātaka stories, that is, stories about episodes occurring in a past life of the Buddha, arguably constitute a subset of the avadāna genre. However, jātaka stories have been largely excluded from this article, because Naomi Appleton has already written an excellent entry on the topic “Jātaka” for Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism. Scholars have engaged in a great deal of speculation on the origin and meaning of the term, avadāna/apadāna, and the type or genre of narrative to which it refers, as well as the development of this genre. The word has been variously translated “legend,” “tale,” “karmic tale,” “edifying tale,” as well as “glorious deed,” “heroic deed,” “pure action,” “exploit,” and so on. These translations may be divided into two groups around the core meanings of story and deed. Scholars have also described these stories as “religious biographies,” and generally characterized them (or Buddhist narratives in general) as didactic literature. This characterization emphasizes the instructional and moralistic tenor of many exemplars of this type of literature. Buddhist narratives often tell an implied audience how and how not to act, interspersing instructions and exhortations within a narrative framework through which the reader or hearer learns how other, often exemplary, individuals have acted and the consequences of those actions. Oftentimes, the connections between actions and consequences span lifetimes, and thus the stories serve to exemplify what scholars call the doctrine of karma. Yet, avadānas touch on many other themes as well, such as the doctrine of impermanence or the authority of the Buddha, and they do not always obviously connect present-life actions or circumstances with past or future ones. Moreover, while scholars have traditionally considered avadānas to be intended for popular consumption, evidence suggests that Buddhist monastics specialized in their recitation and preservation. Significant work remains to be done for scholars and students to appreciate the place of avadānas, both specific stories and collections, in Buddhist literature and Buddhism, more generally. In order to reach this fuller appreciation, the field will need to consider many historical, literary, and theoretical questions in addition to continuing the yeoman’s work of textual criticism and translation.
Several important general overviews of avadāna literature are found in the introductions to editions and translations of specific collections of tales, such as Feer 1891 and Speyer 1902–1909, both cited under Avadānaśataka: Editions and Translations. Many more works listed in other sections provide excellent general overviews, such as Tatelman 2000, cited under Divyāvadāna: Editions and Translations. Although no book-length overview has yet been written in a modern Western language, Iwamoto 1978 serves well for readers of Japanese. De Jong 1984 offers a useful summary of the contents of Iwamoto 1978 for those who cannot read Japanese. No similar study exists in another language, but Norman 1983 and Hinüber 1996, the general surveys of Pali literature standard in the field, both have useful entries on the Pali Apadāna sources and other Pali texts containing avadāna-like stories. Winternitz 1933 remains useful as a general survey of Buddhist literature, including avadāna literature in Pali and Sanskrit. Thomas 1933 and Winternitz 1930 are short articles discussing the etymology of the terms, avadāna and apadāna, and the origins of the literature to which they refer. Burnouf 2010, cited here in its modern English translation, is significant insofar as it inaugurated Western scholarship on the avadānas, particularly the Avadānaśataka and Divyāvadāna, translated some stories and parts of stories, and was among the first, if not the first, to discuss their place in the history of Indian Buddhism.
Burnouf, Eugène. Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism. Translated by Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez Jr. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Excellent English translation of pioneering work of modern scholarship, which includes partial translations and discussion of a variety of avadānas, mostly from the Divyāvadāna and Avadānaśataka. Original published in French in 1844.
de Jong, Jan Willem. “Review of Yutaka Iwamoto, Bukkyō setsuwa kenkyū josetsu.” Indo-Iranian Journal 27.1 (1984): 52–60.
Provides extensive summary of Iwamoto 1978, the only available book-length introductory survey of avadāna literature. Particularly useful for those who cannot read Japanese.
Hinüber, Oskar von. A Handbook of Pāli Literature. Edited by Albrecht Wezler and Michael Witzel. Indian Philology and South Asian Studies, Vol. 2. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996.
Brief entries, but nearly comprehensive in its survey of works in Pali Buddhist literature. The Apadāna and Cariyāpiṭaka are discussed on pages 60–61 and 63–64, respectively.
Iwamoto Yutaka 岩本裕. Bukkyō Setsuwa Kenkyū Josetsu (佛教說話研究序說). Vol. 1. Rev. and exp. ed. Tokyo: Kaimeishoin, 1978.
(An introduction to the study of Buddhist narrative literature). Introductory survey by the scholar that Michael Hahn, himself probably the greatest modern scholar of late Indian Buddhist narrative poetry, once called “the greatest Japanese scholar in the field of Buddhist narrative literature.” chapter 1 includes excellent bibliographic overview. For a summary review in English, see De Jong 1984.
Norman, K. R. Pāli Literature: Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of All the Hīnayāna Schools of Buddhism. Edited by Jan Gonda. A History of Indian Literature, Vol. 7, fascicle 2. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983.
An excellent resource for Pali Buddhist literature, including discussions of the Mahāpadānasutta/Mahāvadānasūtra (pp. 36–37), the Pali Apadāna (pp. 89–92), the Cariyāpiṭaka (pp. 94–95), which the colophon calls a Buddhāpadāniya. Important remarks on page 9 about the canonical status of the latter two collections and the Buddhavaṃsa. Much less is found on the canonical literature of other non-Mahayana Indian schools.
Thomas, E. J. “Avadāna and Apadāna.” Indian Historical Quarterly 9 (1933): 32–36.
Brief article discussing the nature and origins of the avadāna genre in relation to the nine or twelve “divisions” (aṅga) of Buddhist literature and the Vinaya. Credits the Sarvāstivāda school with developing the Sanskrit avadāna genre, which the author distinguishes sharply from the Pali Apadāna collection. See also same author’s History of Buddhist Thought (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1933), page 276 and following.
Winternitz, Moriz. “Avadāna, Apadāna.” Journal of the Taisho University 6–7 (1930): 7–12.
Vols. VI–VII. In “Commemoration of the Sixtieth Birthday of Professor Unrai Wogihara, Ph. D., D. Lit. Part II: European Section.” Tokyo: Taisho University, 1930. Short but useful essay on the meaning and etymology of the terms. In this reviewer’s view, however, the author overestimates the extent to which modern scholars understand the nature and scope of the genre.
Winternitz, Moriz. A History of Indian Literature. Vol. 2, Buddhist Literature and Jaina Literature. Translated by S. Ketkar and H. Kohn. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1933.
Pioneering survey of Buddhist literature. Somewhat dated in its conclusions, though helpfully written for a general audience. Includes sections on the Pali Apadāna and Jataka collections (pp. 158–160 and 113–156, respectively), the Mahāvastu (pp. 239–247), and the Sanskrit avadāna collections (pp. 277–294).
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